As always, thanks to Annie for the Relay Station, and all the wonderful storytellers who find a home there. With gratitude to Betty, Shay, Mary and Karen for all they do.
When he first heard it, Slim thought it was maybe the most arrogant thing he’d ever heard said. Afterwards, looking back, he wasn’t so sure.
It was late December, and the snow was knee-deep on the horses. And cold: cold enough that the snow on the paths they’d beaten out to the barn and corrals squeaked underfoot when you stepped on it, the air sharp as knives in the lungs. The snow at least was dry, powdery as the confectioner’s sugar Jonesy insisted on getting every Christmas. It made it easy to shovel out of the way, to keep the porch and paths clear, the pump and water trough open for the stock.
The ranch was in its winter lull, little enough to do compared to the rest of the year; but the snow and cold made everything twice as difficult and take three times as long to accomplish. And Slim’s new hand was a willing enough worker, but had little tolerance for the cold. He did a normal amount of grousing, less than Jonesy did, come to that; but the last time they rode fence, he was shaking so hard with the cold Slim sent him back to the ranch house, exasperated and concerned. He knew Jess didn’t have clothing warm enough for a Wyoming winter; and he’d had to ask him to forgo his pay the last two weeks. Made it hard for the man to buy what he needed. It made Slim feel guilty, and that was like an itch he couldn’t scratch.
“Were you plannin’ t’get through winter with just a pair of jeans? Even Texas isn't that warm.”
He asked him that at first snow-fall, back in November, and Jess just grinned that shit-eating grin and said, “That’s what the poker winnin’s I was trackin’ down were for; good warm work clothes so’s I could go t’work for an easy-goin’ generous, high-payin’ Wyoming rancher.”
“Right.” Slim wasn’t sure if that meant Harper was planning to ride on as soon as it got real cold. He was never sure if he could rely on him, for more than the day in front of them. There’d been too many times Jess’d ridden out in the past six months, too many times Andy’d fretted and he’d worried, and more than one time Slim’d ridden out after him
Slim came over the little ridge just east of the ranch, reining up for a moment to look over the buildings. The house needed white wash, but it was sound enough, and there was a curl of smoke from the chimney that said Jonesy had the fireplace as well as the cook stove going. The porch was crowded with the wood they’d stockpiled over the fall, protected from the westerly drifts with a tarp blocking the end of the porch. The barn was closed up against the wind-driven snow, and the corralled stock was huddled together up against the gate, waiting to be brought in. He could see a small, dark figure using an axe to break the ice in the stock trough; too big to be Andy, and too solid to be Jonesy. Harper doing his job. Alamo bobbed his head, making the curb-chain rattle, and telling Slim as plain as he could that he was tired of standing up here in the wind, especially with a barn within sight and smell. He lowered his hand and let the horse move down slope: Jess, alert as always to anything that moved, raised a hand in salute and then turned to open the barn doors and start bringing in the stock.
By the time he was in the yard Jess had them all in, was rubbing his hands together to warm them as Slim led Alamo into his stall.
“Fence line okay?”
“Yeah.” Slim unsaddled, slipped the bridle free. “Why don’t you get into the house and warm up? I’ll be along. Tell Jonesy I said he’d better have supper warming.”
“Sure I will,” Jess said, so obviously lying it made Slim laugh. But he didn’t argue the ‘get into the house’ part. Thin-blooded, Jonesy called it. Too many years in the heat of the South to do well up here.
The main room was warm and bright with firelight and lanterns. Neither Jonesy nor his Pa had ever been stingy with light in the winter, no matter how tight money was. And it always seemed the light held the cold out, nearly as much as the fire itself did. Jess was in the rocker by the fire, boots off and sock feet stretched out toward the hearth, a coffee-cup in hand and a contented look on his face. Andy sat on the hearth, hands moving to shape the story he was telling, as if he could draw pictures in the air, and Jonesy was muttering and banging in the kitchen. The warm tang of stew and biscuits filled the house, familiar from childhood.
“'Bout time.” Jonesy growled. “Thought I was gonna be cookin’ ‘til midnight, time it was takin’ you to get back.”
Slim dusted snow off his hat, hung it on a peg with his gun belt, and slid his jacket off, grateful for the house’s warmth. “Snow’s drifting heavy along the north range fence line. Took awhile.”
“Fences okay?” Jonesy set the big stew pot down on the table.
“For now.” It was always a worry: stock drifting off the ranch ahead of a storm were at risk for loss, and there was no room for loss in the ranch budget, right now.
“It’s true.” Andy’s voice rose a little, with excitement. “Honest, Jess, Mrs. Robison told me about this, and showed me an old book that had a picture in it. It’s true, they kneel. Christmas Eve I’m gonna stay up and check.”
“Whoa there partner, I’m not doubtin’ your word. I’m just sayin’ I never seen the like.” Jess’ voice was amused.
“The like of what?” Slim took his seat at the table. “And you two better get over here if you’re plannin’ on eatin’ any of this stew.”
“The animals kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve!” Andy took his seat, eyes alight with the excitement of learning something new. “It’s in honor of the Christ child’s birth; if you go to a barn at midnight, they’ll all be kneeling.”
“Hmm. That’s a new one.” Jonesy slid into his own seat. “Mrs. Robison had a book, you say?”
“Yep, sure did, called ‘Christmas in the Old World.’ An’ this story was in it, with a picture of all the animals kneelin’.”
“Well that sounds real nice, Andy. Can’t say I’ve ever seen it, though.”
“Well Jonesy, how many times have you been in a barn on Christmas Eve at midnight?” Andy had a stubborn look, this little story meaning something to him that Slim couldn’t quite see.
“He’s gotcha there, Jonesy.” Jess said; “I don’t remember ever bein’ in a barn at that time, myself.”
“Sounds like a legend, to me.” Slim put in. I’m not easy with this, he thought, there’s way too much urgency in Andy’s voice. “You don’t want to put too much store in it, Andy.”
“I aim to stay up and see for myself.” Andy laid it down like a challenge, meeting Slim’s eyes defiantly.
“I don’t know…” Slim started, thinking about all the dangers a night walk to the barn could hold, if the weather turned.
“We could all go.” Jess said softly, rescuing the moment. “It’s a thing I’d like to see.”
“We’ll see.” Slim spooned stew, ending the topic. “This snow keeps up, we won’t even see the mail stage this week.”
“I thought the contract was they had to keep the mail moving all winter.”
“They do.” He answered Jess. “They might have to send a work team through first to break trail though. That could hold ‘em up until after Christmas.”
Jess nodded, thoughtfully.
“Expecting something, Jess?” Slim asked.
“Naw. There’s no one’d be writin’ me this time of year.”
After supper, Jonesy got Slim to go through the old trunks in the attic; looking for warm clothes they could lend Jess. Slim worked quickly; the attic was chill, despite the solid chinking in the logs and the warmth from the fire below. He found some long-handles he’d had before joining the Army; still long in the leg for Jess, but smaller in the frame. It’d be a good enough fit. And Jonesy could likely turn the ends of the legs up, stitch ‘em to size. Not great but it would do ‘til he could pay Jess. He heard the bang of the front door, and a gust of cold air came up the ladder; Jonesy or Jess going out to the yard for a moment. But then Andy’s voice came, high and shaky with anger and fear, the words unclear. And Jess’ voice, low and harsh, and then finally, clearly, Jonesy saying, “Slim. You better get down here.”
He edged to the trap door, the little square framing just a small glimpse of the room below. He could make out Jess’ dark head, standing with Andy behind him and holding his hands up, like a man under the gun.
“Sherman.” It was a stranger’s voice, calm and cool. “Climb down here easy. I got business here, but nothin’ that will hurt you an’ yours.”
He eased down the ladder cautiously, regretting the gun belt hanging on a hook by the door. But a man shouldn’t have to go armed in his own home…
There were three men in the room with his family; hard-faced, quiet, no bluster in their manner. There was a drift of snow on the floor by the front door, snow melting on the men’s shoulders.
“What do you want?”
“His name’s Matthews, Slim.” Jess’ voice, with something in it that sounded like hate. “He’s a pole cat. Worthless, no good.”
Matthews smiled, and that made him seem more dangerous than if he’d responded to Jess’ baiting with anger.
“All right.” Slim said easily. “What do you want, Matthews?”
“I want to borrow your ranch house for a day or so, Sherman. Just ‘til the mail coach gets here. And then after I pick up a special delivery, I’ll be gone. With no harm to anyone.”
“Are we supposed to believe that?” Jess’ voice was sharp, still trying to push a fight with this man. Slim flicked a glance at him, saw the calculating way he was watching Matthews.
“Jess. Enough.” Slim tried measure Matthews: the man was cool, letting all Jess’ anger wash off him like the melting snow. And sure of himself, sure that whatever he was planning was going to work.
“You can believe it.” Matthews said casually. “I’m a business man, I got no need for complications. You know that, Harper. You’ve seen me in action before.”
“Yeah. And regretted it.”
Matthews shrugged. “I got one little errand for you, Harper, and that’s all I’m askin’ of you. And all I’m askin’ of you, Sherman, is a night or two here.”
“Asking? Or telling?”
“Comes to the same thing in the end. Just a night or two, and you and your hands to look like everything is normal. Harper. I need you to ride out to the old Carson mine. There’s a man waiting there. You need to let him know we’re ready. Then ride back.”
“Now?” Slim asked. “It’s blowin’ up a blizzard out there.”
“It’s not that bad. And it’s a short ride, maybe five miles all told. No problem for a good horse and a good rider.”
“Then send one of your men,” Slim pushed it.
“Why waste a man?” Matthews smiled and there was no humor in it. “I like to keep the odds in my favor. And I know Harper; he won't take any chances with the rest of you.
“And if something goes wrong?” Jess’ voice was quiet.
“It better not. That man has t’do something for me tomorrow morning. If he don’t, I’ll know. And then somebody dies.”
“Nobody dies.” Jess stepped forward. “You hear me Matthews? Nobody dies.”
The two held eyes for a long moment. “Don’t try me, Harper.”
“And don’t try me.” Jess shifted his gaze, to the other two men. “Harris. Coulter. You hear me? Nobody gets hurt.”
“And you’re givin’ the orders?” Matthews sounded amused, and Jess turned back to him.
“In this I am. You know I mean it, Matthews. An’ so do they.” He moved to the pegs by the door, pulled on his jacket and hat, tied the sides down with a scarf to cover his ears and chin, pulled his gloves on. All as matter-of-fact as if he were stepping out to feed the stock.
“Jess.” Slim started forward, and Jess turned to meet him.
“It’s okay Slim. Nothin’s gonna happen.”
“You know I will.” Jess looked at Matthews, steadily. “Don’t worry about these jaspers. They know me.”
It was maybe the most arrogant thing he’d ever heard.
The storm was clearing: the wind-torn edges of the clouds showed silver-white against the full moon, and the last few flakes of snow, light as feathers, reflected moonlight and lantern light like the “fairy mirrors” Francie used to tell him about. Jess felt the familiar pang at his heart when he thought about her, half joy in the memory of good times, half sadness at her loss. It maybe helped him understand why Andy wanted so badly to see the animals kneel; they both longed to see some promise of good in the world, and some promise that there was more to the world than just the surface. Spirit, the People called it. He shook off the emotion, needing to focus now. Slim had stood by him through everything, including that no-account fugitive that Francie’d married; he needed to return that favor now, needed to make sure that Slim and his family came through this unharmed.
Trav was sulky at being tacked, humping his back and pulling at Jess’ jacket with his teeth, as close to nipping as he was able to go. He led him in a circle in the aisle, tightening the girth slowly, not willing to ride out as much as a crow-hop on a night like this.
“C’mon, jughead,” he growled at him. “You been loafin’ all day t'day. Time you earned your feed.”
They know me, he’d told Slim. He’d meant it as reassurance, saw the startlement in Slim’s eyes when he said it. But they knew him, Matthews and his gang, knew that if they touched what was his, he’d never rest until he’d ridden them down. Knew better than to try him, ever. And that was the best insurance he had, for his new family’s safety.
Trav relaxed, reluctantly, giving in to the necessity of the tightened girth. He stepped up as soon as he cleared the barn doors, set Trav to a jog once they’d climbed the ridge. The wind sand-papered at his face, cold that stung and burned. It picked the dry snow up easily, whirling it head high, so the road in front of him vanished in a spray of white flakes. He gave Trav his head, trusting the horse’s good sense to stay on the road, careful not to ask him to move faster than he was willing. The old Carson mine was an easy ride; straight out west on the Laramie road, and then up a little spur trail, no more than an eighth of a mile from the road, right at the eastern edge of the Medicine Bow pass. It took him just over a half hour to get there he guessed, Trav willing to move briskly, wanting to stay warm.
There was a light just inside the entrance, shining out through what looked like a temporary door. “Hello the mine!” He called, reining up just inside the light.
“Step down slowly.” It was a growl that meant business, and he followed orders to the letter.
The speaker pushed through the door, a shotgun ready in his hands. “Jess Harper.”
The voice was familiar, and he pulled the name up out of memory. “Miller. You running with Matthews now? Not so smart.” But then Miller was never known for his brains. He had steady hands and no imagination, and he’d made a living doing blasting for the railroads when Jess knew him.
“Not your business.” Miller looked uneasy. “What are you doing here?”
“Matthews sent me. Said to tell you he’s ready.”
“Good. That’s good.”
“So what are you doin’ for him, Miller?”
“Nothin’ much Jess.” Miller’s eyes cut away from him then back. “Little explosion work, that’s all.”
“What kind of ‘little explosion’ work, Miller? The kind that gets you a rope necktie?”
“NO! Jess, no, nothin’ like that, just bring some snow down across the road, is all; just make sure nobody comin’ east from Medicine Bow can get through. That’s all.” Miller shifted from foot to foot, a slow man, trying to think through a situation moving too fast for him.
“That’s all.” He took a breath, thoughts racing. “Miller, you gotta know, if anybody gets hurt in this little scheme of Matthews’, the law’ll hold you accountable, same as if you did it yourself.”
“Jess. I gotta do what he says, I gotta, or he’ll kill me.”
“If the law don’t kill him and you first.” He made it a threat.
“You keep talkin’ law, Jess, but the law don’t have to come into it ‘til it’s over. ‘Less you’re set on bringin’ em in.” Miller gave him a suspicious look, a stupid man, unpredictable in his stupidity.
“Miller, I swear, sometimes I think you’re too dumb to walk around without a keeper. Do I look like law to you?” Jess took a step forward, ready to go for the shotgun.
“I heard you was stayin’ at that relay station.” Miller took a step back, but the barrel of the shotgun dropped a little.
“I am. I work there. Those are good people, Miller. I owe them.” He held Miller’s eyes. “Matthews says you’re doin’ somethin’ for him tomorrow morning.”
Miler nodded. “That’s when I bring the snow down across the road. I got the charges planted already, all I got to do tomorrow is light the fuses.”
“And no one gets hurt.” Jess watched the uneasiness in Miller's eyes.
Miller nodded hard. “That’s right Jess. Nobody on the road, as early as I set the charges off. An’ if there is, I wait ‘til they’re clear. It’s just snow, that’s all, just take a few extra days for the stage line to clear.” He sounded like a man trying to convince himself.
He mulled it over. “What’s on the mail coach, Miller?”
“Some kinda paper that Matthews wants.” Miller looked confused, “Some kinda…it’s not money, or scrip, he called it somethin’ like ‘bears’.”
“Bears? You sure that’s what he said?” He thought hard, remembering what he’d learned about business, this past six months. “Could it be ‘bearer’? Like ‘bearer bonds’?”
“Yeah! Yeah, I think that’s what it is, Jess! Bearer bonds. Somehow, they turn into money…”
“They sure do. Look, Miler, I’m gonna do you a favor, maybe the biggest favor anybody’s ever done you.”
“What’s that Jess?”
“I’m gonna take care of Matthews for you. You do like I say, and you won’t have to worry about him again.”
Relief flashed in Miller's face. “Will I still get the money, Jess?”
He hid his smile. “No, Miller, but you’ll get your life an’ your freedom. Reckon that’s enough?”
Miller nodded again, slowly. “Reckon so, Jess. You know I don’t like no law trouble.”
“All right. Matthews expects me to come back an’ tell him you’re all set. So you just do what you were gonna do, tomorrow. Except you only set off one charge, just enough so Matthews hears the explosion. An’ then you hightail it out of here, you hear me? You get yourself outta the Wyoming territory an’ stay out.”
“Okay, Jess.” Miller nodded. “You gonna kill Matthews?”
“Not unless he makes me. That’s why I want you out of this territory; he’ll try an’ blame you. I don’t want you sittin’ in a cell while they figure it out. You gotta side arm? Give it to me.” He took the Colt peacemaker, spun the barrel to check it, left it hammer down on an empty chamber.
“You want the belt, Jess?”
“Naw. Too hard t’hide. Give me some more rounds.” He tucked the pistol into his empty rifle scabbard, slid the rounds into the palm of his hand, the glove concealing them. “Thanks Miller. You remember what I said, get yourself clean out of Wyoming.” He stepped up on Trav.
“It’d be easier if you just killed him, Jess.” Miller said, matter-of-factly.
“Mebbe so.” He thought about Andy, and Slim’s rigid honesty. “Mebbe so, but I don’t think my boss would like it.”
Time ticked by slowly, the Matthews gang settling into his house. They were surprisingly polite; finishing the stew but not trying to bully Jonesy or Andy. Watchful, quiet men who spoke little and then only among themselves. Even Matthews had nothing to say to him; just stood at the front window, eyes on the west road.
The clock struck eight when Slim stood up. “Time Andy was in bed,” he told Matthews. “And somebody needs to feed the stock in the barn.”
“The boy can go to bed. The stock can wait ‘til Harper’s back.”
“And your own horses? You going to leave them tied in the yard all night?”
“He’s got a point, Matthews.” The tall thin man, the one Jess called ‘Harris’, spoke up. “They’ll likely tie up, standing out in this wind with the tack on. We need to move ‘em into the barn.”
“All right. But go with Sherman.”
The sky was clear, high and bright with stars when they stepped out into the yard; the moon so bright it cast shadows on the snow. And the cold was deepening, biting at the bone. He hurried through leading in the gang’s horses, stripping the tack. Harris led his own in, walking last, but left the untacking and bedding to Slim, keeping his hand close to his holstered side arm all the time. The man was no fool, there’d be no chance to jump him out here in the barn. Slim was forking hay when he heard Jess’ horse in the yard, and felt his shoulders ease in relief. He never doubted Jess: but he’d worried about the night ride, the cold, and what Jess might find at the end of it. He threw the last forkful into Alamo’s stall, stepped past Harris to push the door open, watch what was happening.
“Matthews!” Jess called, swinging down off his horse, and the house door opened, Matthews silhouetted against the light. “Your message is delivered. Miller is ready.”
“All right. Stable your horse.”
Slim pushed the door open for him, exchanged a brief glance as he led his horse through. Trav’s muzzle had little icicles dangling, where his warm breath had frozen in the brittle air.
“Cold ride?” He asked Jess.
“Not too bad. I kept an easy pace, no point in killin’ a good horse.”
And like the arrogance of what he’d said earlier, that pointed out how sure Jess was that Matthews wouldn’t dare harm them. Slim nodded. “Want to blanket him, Jess?”
His friend nodded, and Slim brought one of the thick “rugs” they used for sick stock, or to protect a team that came in sweated in the cold weather. He watched Jess bend down after unsaddling Trav, as if checking the horse’s legs; and slide something into his boot top. He helped Jess buckle the rug on Trav, the horse grunting his pleasure. “Be ready” Jess’ voice was a whisper. “I got Miller t’cooperate. I gotta gun. Reckon tomorrow morning, early…”
“You about ready, Harper? I’m freezin’ my ass off here.” Harris voice, impatient and a little suspicious.
“All right.” Jess punched Slim’s shoulder, lightly, as he moved past. “You best have left me some hot coffee, Harris.”
Harris grinned, stiffly. “Same old Harper…move it.”
It was a night without sleep for all of them. Matthews made a point of searching Jess, and Jess just grinned at him, mocking. Slim held his breath, but Matthews didn't search Jess' boots; maybe the whole point of it was to bait Jess. Andy went to bed, grumbling protests, and Jonesy joined him in their shared room. But Slim knew Jonesy would stay alert, watchful as a sentry in war time, and he could hear the occasional murmur of voices from the room as the night wore down, knew his brother was wakeful as well.
The rest of them spent the night in the main room, warmed by the fireplace and banked stove, drinking endless cups of coffee while the moon moved slowly across the sky, the shadows it cast lengthening, dwindling, then lengthening again, and finally fading as the sky lightened in the east. He and Jess didn’t speak much through the night; every time they started talking Matthews interrupted. But he saw Jess’ eyes drift to the chimney, the hidey-hole where his old Colt rested. And as the first grey light of morning came through the window, Jess whispered, “Be ready.”
The sound of the explosion was startling, his muscles jerking instinctively in response. Matthews smiled. “Right on…” and Jess pushed something into Slim’s hand, the shape immediately recognizable as a gun, and was on his feet, moving to the chimney in two quick steps. Coulter just looked surprised and not alarmed, and then Jess had his hands on the loose stone, pulling it out, and Matthews snapped, “Hold it!” pulling his gun. Slim brought the pistol up to bear on Matthews, eyes and sight focused on the man’s forearm, and squeezed the shot off, praying that the sight was accurate, the gun well-maintained.
The shot was louder than the explosion, taking Matthews in the arm and staggering him back, to sit down abruptly on the couch, face white with shock and gun fallen to the floor.
Jess had the hidden gun, barrel pressed to Coulter’s spine, and Slim turned the barrel of his piece on Harris. The man hadn’t even gone for his gun, and now he raised his hands slowly, reluctantly. Matthews made a slow-motion move toward his dropped gun and Jess fired quickly, accurately, the shot hitting the butt of Matthew’s pistol and then burying itself in the floor. “Don’t move.” Jess spoke quietly enough, but Matthews froze in place, sound hand half-extended.
“Damn, Harper.” Coulter’s voice was rueful. “We shoulda known better, as soon as we found out you was workin’ here.”
“Your mistake.” Jess held the three under his gun while Slim pulled a spare rope out of their room, reassured Jonesy and Andy, and put Jonesy to work tying the three, wrists to ankles. They were meek as calves while that went on; and Jess met his eyes for a moment, something cocky in his own gaze, and said, “They know me.”
Jonesy bandaged Matthews, none too gently; payment Slim thought, for a sleepless night. And by then the stage was in, the Wells Fargo agents riding guard duty only too happy to take the Matthews bunch in hand. Mose turned the team back to Laramie; Jess had promised there was only one charge used, close mouthed about how he knew that, but the Wells Fargo people wanted to wire Medicine Bow, have one of their own scout the pass before going on. They were loaded and out within the hour, and the whole incident seemed unreal to Slim’s tired mind, over and done in less than eight hours.
“Told ’em the road would be clear.” Jess grumbled, reaching for another cup of coffee.
“They didn’t want to take the chance. Can’t blame ’em in this weather. Why block the road, anyway?”
“Confuse the people in Medicine Bow about what happened to the coach, slow down anybody gettin’ a posse together. They woulda killed Mose an’ the guards, Slim. An’ us. An’ likely folks woulda thought the coach was under the avalanche. It coulda been days before they figured it out.”
“Smart.” Slim said, grudgingly.
“Not smart enough. Their blaster was only in it ‘cause Matthews scared him. That was the weak link. And they weren’t countin’ on…” Jess stopped abruptly, face turning a dull red as he met Slim’s eyes, saw the teasing grin.
“They weren’t counting on you? Jess, I swear, you’re too cocky for your own good sometimes.”
“Maybe.” Jess looked down, his own grin showing. “I was gonna say, pard, they weren’t counting on us. But I’ll take the credit.”
“Well, take the credit, but somebody’s gotta feed the stock. You wanna take that on, too?”
He watched Jess grumble his way into his coat and out the door, headed for the barn, managing to swagger a little, even in the snow. Too cocky for your own good, he thought again, amused.
It was going to be a better Christmas than he’d hoped for. The next stage through was Tuesday, Christmas eve, and Mose slid off the box with a big smile on his face, to give him a “Hand Deliver” envelope with the Wells Fargo logo on it, and a promissory note for five hundred dollars inside, reward money on Matthews, Coulter and Harris. He offered it to Jess who grinned and turned it down, suggesting that Slim just pay him his wages in time for him to do some Christmas shopping.
The two of them rode into Laramie together, and Slim deposited the note, drew enough out for Jess to do his shopping, and insisted he buy himself enough warm clothes to see him through the rest of the winter. Jess grumbled that it put a crimp in his gift-buying and Slim told him he either bought it for himself, or he'd be getting long-handles as a Christmas present. That stopped the grumbling, and Mrs. Collins at the general store threw in some hard candy for Andy with Jess’ purchase; that made Jess’ face light up.
They took it easy going home, so it was dark by the time they rode into the yard, the waning moon still bright, a halo of softer light around it that meant clear weather the next day. Jonesy had dinner ready, the chicken and dumplings that normally got saved for a Sunday, and peach pie, made with the last of the canned peaches they’d bought in the fall. Slim smiled to himself, because there’d be more of those luxuries this winter, thanks to the reward.
Andy was exuberant. “We’re gonna have to start countin’ them as a crop, Slim,” he crowed. “Cattle, hay and outlaws; three cash crops on the Sherman ranch.”
Jess choked on his coffee and Slim said, “watch it Andy. You’re starting to sound like Jess.”
“Yeah.” Jess said, “too cocky for your own good.”
Andy just smiled, too happy to ruffle up at the teasing. “Tonight’s the night.”
“Yep,” Jonesy said. “Christmas eve. It’s the night, all right.”
“I aim to stay up an’ go out to the barn at midnight, an’ watch ‘em kneel.”
Slim set his coffee cup down. “I wouldn’t put a lot of store in that, Andy, like I said, I think it’s a legend.”
Andy scowled at him. “I think it’s true, and I aim t’see it. You go to sleep if you want, Slim…”
There was a moment of silence and then Jess said, “I’ll stay up with you Andy. That is, if Jonesy’ll put more coffee on. Otherwise, you got to wake me up at midnight.”
“Jess…” Slim started, and Jonesy kicked him lightly, under the table.
“I’ll stay up too, Andy,” Jonesy said, glaring at Slim. “Sometimes what makes a miracle happen is t’believe in it.”
It silenced him. He didn’t want Andy disappointed, that was all, but he wasn’t trying to pour cold water on his spirit either. “Count me in,” he sighed, and was rewarded with his brother’s brilliant smile.
It was dark and warm in the barn at midnight, fragrant with the good straw they’d put down that afternoon, and the green smell of the hay stockpiled overhead in the loft. The only sound was the gentle rustling of the bedding under the horses’ feet, and the easy, soft rhythm of a lot of big animals breathing peaceful. The yard had been bright enough to walk easily, and the wind too strong to carry a lit lantern in, so they stopped on the hard-packed earth of the entrance, for Slim to light the hurricane he’d brought with them.
He focused on the wick, careful as always of fire in a barn, and watched the flame grow, reluctant to look up and see Andy’s disappointment. And then he heard Jess catch his breath, and Andy said softly, so softly, “Oh.”
Slim lifted his head to look down the row of stalls. Ten horses, counting the big work team. Add in Jonesy’s donkey and the old milker, and there were twelve animals in the dark, warm peace of the Christmas eve, all of them down in the straw; curled on their sides, feet tucked up against their bodies as neat as a foal in sleep. Slim Sherman looked in awe at the animals kneeling in his barn, and whispered, “I’ll be damned” as reverent as a prayer.
“Merry Christmas, pard.” Jess said.
rev November 2011
This actually happened to me one year, on the track. I stepped into the shedrow at midnight (I was living in the tackroom above) and the horses, all twenty of them, were down in the straw, forelegs curled and noses dropping low. It might have been training fatigue, but all of them at once was a huge coincidence, so maybe it was my own private Christmas miracle….
Written for the challenge, “they know me” and “you're too cocky for your own good.”